Nobel laureate earned college degree at Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
ATCHISON, Kan. - The Benedictine Sisters at Mount St. Scholastica Monastery were roused early on Oct. 8.
Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai talks on the phone in Nyeri, Kenya, shortly after she was named the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Oct. 8. She is the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the peace prize.
Sister Thomasita Homan had heard on a BBC broadcast about 4 a.m. that Mount St. Scholastica College alumna Wangari Maathai, 64, an environmental activist and government minister of Kenya, had won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.
"She woke me up to tell me the news. We all were delighted," recalled Sister Kathleen Egan.
Sister Homan said, "I wanted the whole world to be awake."
Sister Anne Shepard said, "There was exuberance here in the monastery when we heard the news. All I could think was, 'Wow!'"
Maathai graduated in 1964 with a degree in biology from Mount St. Scholastica College, which later merged with Benedictine College. She earned a doctorate in biological sciences from the University of Nairobi in 1971, and is believed to be the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate.
In 1977, Maathai established the Green Belt Movement, which has planted more than 30 million trees in Kenya to help combat deforestation. She had become aware of the devastation brought about by the wiping out about 75 percent of Kenya's woodlands over the past 150 years. She approached governmental foresters to ask for help in fighting the encroaching desert, but was met with derision.
She didn't give up.
"She began by giving small saplings to village women to plant and care for," Sister Homan said. "Three months later, if the trees were thriving, she would give each woman a few pence (pennies) to continue caring for them. This had a two-fold benefit: the trees were cared for and the women had a small income. That may not be much to you or me, but for the village women it was income," she said.
Today the Green Belt Movement's 6,000 village-based nurseries - entirely run by women - have revitalized the soil and, as an added benefit, revolutionized the lives of village women who no longer have to travel long distances on foot to search for trees for firewood.
The movement helped empower the women to solve problems in their communities. They began to challenge governmental forestry policies and the Kenyan government's long-standing dependency on costly imported crops and foods. The villagers began to create "food security" through the revival of traditional food crops and sustainable farming practices.
Sister Homan said Maathai "personifies the Benedictine motif, 'Pax,' by pursuing peace. She is powerful because when she sees pain in her people or the land, she does something about it."
Maathai's efforts led to her 2003 appointment as Kenya's deputy environment minister, but the path was not smooth. She made enemies during an unsuccessful1997 run for the presidency of Kenya by opposing the government of former President Daniel arap Moi on environmental issues.
"I've seen pictures of her bloodied and beaten, and she was imprisoned several times," recalled Sister Homan. "We wanted her to speak at commencement ceremonies twice and she was unable to come because she was in hiding, afraid that if she left Kenya, she wouldn't be allowed back into the country."
Last year, newly elected Kenyan president Mwai Kibabi appointed Maathai as the minister of the environment, natural resources and wildlife. Her activism has earned her many awards and recognition over the years, but she is credited as being the first black African woman to receive the Nobel Prize.
Maathai has never forgotten Mount St. Scholastica or the Benedictine Sisters who taught her and were her friends. She attributed much of her success to the Benedictine Sisters. She wrote in an autobiographical article that at Mount St. Scholastica, "On a daily basis I saw women working hard for higher goals and inner peace. This must have impacted my own conscience and values as I matured."
Sister Kathleen Egan, 89, a former speech teacher at the college, spoke in a low, modulated voice about her former student.
"Wangari was known as Mary Jo when she was a student here," she recalled. "She came to us in 1960, with nothing but a great mind and personality and the clothes on her back. The Kennedy Foundation had provided the funds to get her to the United States, and she received a full scholarship from the college. The sisters gave her everything else she needed. I believe the dean even gave her pocket money.
"She was a dynamic speaker with a very vivid, very white smile against her dark coloring," Sister Egan remembered. "She was captivating.
"I am thrilled that she is spreading peace, the Benedictine motif of 'Pax,' into the world."
Maathai is the 12th woman to win the peace prize since it was first awarded in 1901. Announcing the award in Oslo, Norway, the Nobel committee chairman, Ole Danboldt Mjoes, said Maathai "represents an example and a source for everyone in Africa fighting for sustainable development democracy and peace."
The peace award and a $1.3 million cash prize will be presented to Maathai on Dec.10 in Oslo, Norway.
By selecting Maathai, who is divorced with three children, to receive the peace award and its cash prize, the Nobel committee broadened the traditional boundaries of the prize that were laid out in the 1896 will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite. He decreed that the award should go "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."
Mjoes said Maathai was selected out of a record 194 nominations because she "stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa. She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development and embraces democracy, human rights and women's rights in particular. She thinks globally and acts locally."
Sister Homan, who had twice nominated Maathai for the Nobel Peace Prize, agreed. "Wangari Maathai is highly deserving of the Nobel Peace award. She is a woman faithful to her dream, faithful to her environment, faithful to her people and her many friends, faithful to her country and the world at large," she said. "Environment and peace have been the pattern of her days since her college days here at Mount St. Scholastica, now Benedictine College."
Her children, her school mates and former teachers, the women of Kenya and the now-friendly government of Mwai Kibabi celebrated the news of Maathai's award.
But others were critical of the selection. Carl I. Hagen, leader of the Progress Party in Norway, questioned giving the peace prize to an environmentalist. "I thought the intentions of Alfred Nobel's will was to focus on a person or organization who had worked actively for peace," he said. "It is odd that the committee has completely overlooked the unrest that the world is living with daily."
Norway's newspaper, Aftenposten, replied in an Oct. 9 editorial, that "deforestation, erosion and climate change in the Amazon, Haiti, China and Africa have changed the conditions of the life for millions of people and led to hunger and need, increased tensions between populations and countries. There is something untraditional and exciting about this award."
Sister Homan has taught English at Benedictine College for all but two and a half years of her tenure there. During those years she was the alumni director, and says she is grateful for that time, "because that was when I got to know my friend, Wangari Maathai."